Four wheels bad, two wheels good

While TA is just at the start of long journey toward greener transport, cycling is gaining recognition as a way to get around congested city.

Tel Aviv bicycles 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: Tel Aviv Municipality)
Tel Aviv bicycles 521
(photo credit: Courtesy: Tel Aviv Municipality)
As it crawls through the morning rush-hour traffic jam on Tel Aviv’s Rehov Jabotinsky, a bus belches out a plume of eye-stinging grayish-yellow exhaust fumes, temporarily obscuring an advertisement for a car leasing company on its rear. It reads simply: “The Tel Aviv Train should be operational in seven years [Newspaper headline, 2000].”
It’s a smart, if cynical, way to lure more Tel Avivians into private car ownership by reminding them of the city’s ongoing public transport problem.
Tel Aviv has been waiting for an overhaul of its public transport system ever since the first plans for a subway were proposed in the 1930s, and air pollution and congestion are hardly newcomers to the city.
Tel Aviv poet Natan Alterman famously expressed his disappointment at the delayed railway in a 1936 poem, and Haim Nahman Bialik, in a 1932 article titled “What should be done for the betterment of Tel Aviv,” wrote that Tel Avivians deserved a greener city: “There is also a large hygienic advantage,” Bialik noted, “to purifying the air.”
Though the light rail is yet to arrive (according to current estimates, it should be operational in six years), ever-growing numbers of Tel Avivians are already seeking alternative, greener ways to beat the Tel Aviv traffic.
The new trend can be easily summed up thus (with apologies to George Orwell): Four wheels bad, two wheels good.
Cycling, once seen as a form of transport for those who could not afford a car or for the merely eccentric, is becoming an increasingly popular way to get around the city.
At the avant-garde of Tel Aviv’s cycling revolution is Yotam Avizohar, director of the nonprofit Yisrael Bishvil Ofanaim (Israel for Bikes). Avizohar has been a passionate urban cycling evangelist since he founded Israel for Bikes back in 1994.
“Tel Aviv is a classic city for bikes,” he says. “It’s flat, relatively small and there’s no snow or other bad weather to prevent people from cycling. And the city is very congested, so cycling is a good way to beat the traffic.”
In the 17 years since Israel for Bikes first began encouraging Tel Avivians to cycle, the city has undergone a radical transformation in its attitude toward self-powered two-wheel transport. Back in the mid-Nineties, there were few, if any, dedicated bike paths for example.
And at City Hall, people initially viewed the idea of promoting cycling in Tel Aviv with skepticism.
“Some people said bikes are for Third World countries, not developed ones like Israel,” Avizohar remembers. “Others said, this is the Middle East and a car is the only way to travel.”
Avizohar praises the city’s current mayor, Ron Huldai, who he says recognized that bikes could actually make a big difference in Tel Aviv. “At first, City Hall added a few bike lanes on the sidewalks,” he says. “That encouraged more and more people to start cycling.”
It is only in the past couple of years, though, that cycling has really taken off in Tel Aviv. Bike shops selling new and secondhand cycles have sprung up all over the city; and at weekends, cyclists of all ages can be seen crowding the beachside promenades and Yarkon Park. The cycling trend has spread across Israel, which has emerged as a surprising market leader in high-end bike sales.
Overall, Israelis buy 300,000 bikes annually, an impressive figure for a country with a population of just 7.7 million.
“Today, Tel Aviv is a city of bikes, like Amsterdam,” Avizohar adds with pride.
If encouraging Israelis to cycle instead of drive was originally left to nonprofit organizations like Israel for Bikes, it has now become a government priority. According to a report published this year by the Environmental Protection Ministry, “sustainable transport,” which includes reducing the country’s reliance on private vehicles, is high on the government’s agenda.
“The challenge is to create an urban space dedicated to people rather than motorized transport,” states the report, which further notes that the Transportation Ministry is preparing a comprehensive National Master Plan for Land Transport, whose goals are to “establish a national transport system which is integrated, efficient, sustainable and which respects the environment.”
In parallel, the Environmental Protection Ministry has been tasked with developing a national program for reducing air pollution, in the wake of the Clean Air Act, which finally entered into force this year.
As the country edges toward more environmentally friendly transport, Tel Aviv is leading the way by investing heavily in schemes to reduce private car use and boost cycling.
THIS MONTH saw the launch of Tel-OFun, Tel Aviv’s citywide bike rental program, jointly funded by the Tel Aviv Municipality and the Transportation Ministry. According to Tel Aviv municipality spokesperson Zohar Sosenko, during the scheme’s first phase, an initial fleet of 1,500 bikes is to be deployed at 150 stations around Tel Aviv.
The bikes can be rented by an annual subscription of NIS 240 for Tel Aviv residents and NIS 280 for non-residents, with daily and weekly rental also possible.
The first half-hour of each rental is free, and bikes can be taken and returned from and to any of the 150 stations.
Though Tel-O-Fun currently has just 10 bikes at each rental station, the municipality plans to expand the fleet to over 5,000 bikes over the next decade.
With Tel-O-Fun, Tel Aviv joins a growing worldwide trend of large-scale bike sharing schemes, which are already a popular sight in cities across France, Germany, Spain, Scandinavia and North America.
Israel for Bikes director Avizohar is optimistic that as well as helping more people access bikes, Tel-O-Fun will also remove some of the issues that currently discourage cyclists – including a lack of places to park bikes, concerns about safety, and a lack of joined-up bike lanes connecting the city from east to west and north to south.
One major issue that has plagued Tel Aviv’s cyclists is the soaring rate of bike thefts in the city. To deter thieves, City Hall has fitted the rental bikes with a state-of-the art, Israeli-designed electronic smart lock that will secure them to special parking spaces at rental stations.
It is likely that the bikes’ distinctive bright green municipal branding will also deter thefts by making the cycles hard to resell, at least within Israel.
Another positive effect of the rental scheme has been to promote a largescale improvement of the Tel Aviv’s cycling infrastructure.
“As [Tel-O-Fun] is being paid for in part by City Hall, it becomes their responsibility to help residents use the bikes by creating more bike lanes,” says Avizohar.
Dedicated bike lanes have been created in many parts of the city following City Hall’s pledge to create 100 kilometers of new lanes in honor of Tel Aviv’s centenary.
While there has been an undeniable improvement in the city’s bike lane capacity, both cyclists and non-cyclists complain that the current lanes are problematic.
Most have been added to existing sidewalks, which has led to conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians.
The sidewalk bike lane on busy Rehov Ibn Gvirol in central Tel Aviv, for example, spares cyclists the peril of negotiating vehicular traffic, but has created new dangers and headaches by forcing them to share the space with pedestrians.
Similar problems abound in other parts of the city. Bus shelters built across lanes are a common cause for complaint, but perhaps one of the most absurd bike lane obstacles can be found at the corner of Sderot Rothschild and Allenby Road, where a sushi restaurant has been built right across the lane, forcing cyclists to cycle in the pedestrian lane.
Some Tel Aviv cyclists are openly scathing about these issues.
“Bike paths in the city are nothing more than graffiti on the sidewalk painted by City Hall workers,” complains one member of Bike Lanes to Nowhere, a Facebook group for disgruntled Tel Aviv cyclists. “In practice, they’re full of obstacles (ridiculous at best, life-threatening at worst); they aren’t connected to each other and don’t allow continuous riding.
“Instead of patting itself on the back about this dangerous nonsense, it’s high time Tel Aviv took the example of cities like Berlin, and established a proper infrastructure for safe and effective cycling.”
In response to calls for a solution for cyclists that does not adversely affect pedestrians, City Hall recently constructed a new type of lane on Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Sadeh streets. These lanes have been built directly on the road, so they do not disturb pedestrians – but cyclists are also separated from dangerous road traffic by a line of parked cars.
City Hall spokesperson Sosenko said that similar bike lanes were planned for more city streets, including Bloch, Pinkas and Shlomo Hamelech in the city center, and Rehov Yehuda Hayamit in Jaffa.
WHILE THIS is good news for Tel Aviv’s growing number of cyclists, not everybody is happy about the plans.
Residents of Tel Aviv’s “old North” neighborhood near Kikar Hamedina complain that the municipal plan to create the new-style bike paths on Rehov Bloch will drastically reduce the number of curbside parking spaces available in that street. As a result, local people will have to spend even more time searching for that Holy Grail of Tel Aviv – a roadside parking space.
“Old North” resident Dan Haimovich is leading a local residents’ action group campaign to oppose the plan. He says passions are running high among residents of Rehov Bloch and the surrounding streets.
“Don’t misunderstand us; we’re not opposed to cycling. Not at all,” Haimovich stresses. “And we’re not even against bike lanes. But in our neighborhood, there is a very serious lack of parking spaces, and now City Hall is going to make that problem even worse.”
Just how severe is the parking problem in Tel Aviv’s old North? Residents complain it can take over an hour to find parking in the evenings, when they return home from work at the same time as crowds converge on the neighborhood’s bars, cafes, cinemas and restaurants. The limited parking spaces fill up fast, leaving residents to scour the neighborhood in search of a car-sized stretch of blue-and-white painted curb.
After the bike lane is constructed, residents say there will be fewer than 60 parking spaces in the neighborhood.
As well as their concerns about local parking spaces, Haimovich says residents are angry because City Hall announced the bike lane plan without public consultation.
“City Hall did this in a very undemocratic way,” says Haimovich. “We had just been presented with an official notice about the plans to renovate the road. Nobody thought to ask us what we think.”
According to Haimovich, though local residents are prepared to discuss alternative solutions to the parking problem with City Hall, to date nobody has been willing to listen.
“If City Hall consults us, we could find a solution together,” he adds.
Local residents have not only created a petition against the Rehov Bloch scheme; they have even written a song titled “I’m Tired of Searching for a Parking Space,” expressing their frustration over the parking problem. Rich with meticulous detail regarding the parking-related irritations that inevitably grip every Tel Aviv driver, the song neatly encapsulates the annoyance residents feel about City Hall’s bike lane scheme. You can’t just toss local residents to the sidelines, it says. What’s needed is thought and planning, and not some painful solution dragged out of thin air.
“Old North” resident Zvika Bracha has also joined the protest about the Rehov Bloch scheme. He says the municipality’s new bike schemes are a “marketing gimmick” that will not solve Tel Aviv’s serious transport problems.
“It’s true that the bike schemes are green, and they make City Hall look good. But what about residents? It’s not practical for many people to give up their car. Many people living here are families with children who cannot just abandon their cars and jump on a bike,” says Bracha.
“There are also people with disabilities who need a car to get around.”
Bracha also points out that many of the cars clogging up Tel Aviv’s streets belong not to local residents, but to those commuting from other areas of the city, or even from outside it.
Israel for Bikes director Avizohar, whose organization has campaigned for more bike lanes, is quick to add that he understands and even sympathizes with residents’ concerns about parking.
“We absolutely don’t believe in forcing people to give up their car. I understand why people want a car in Tel Aviv,” he says. “But creating more parking spaces is not going to solve traffic problems in the city.”
Avizohar points to the serious public health risks that traffic congestion and its resultant air pollution cause in Tel Aviv.
According to EU research, Tel Aviv is the European and Mediterranean region’s third most-polluted city, after Bucharest and Krakow. The city’s car overcrowding problem is a major contributor to that statistic.
And air pollution doesn’t just stink – it’s lethal. A study by the Environmental Protection Ministry reported that air pollution kills around 1,100 people a year in the Tel Aviv region. Several European medical studies have shown that exposure to traffic pollution is associated with daily mortality rates, and that people with medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease are particularly susceptible.
In a drastic bid to reduce air pollution, some countries such as Italy and China have even imposed strict restrictions on private cars in cities.
While this might not be practical in Tel Aviv, there are steps that can be taken to improve air quality, by making it easier for people to leave their cars at home.
“Tel Aviv needs an integrated public transport system, like London or Amsterdam,” says Avizohar.
THE GOOD news for cycling enthusiasts and ordinary Tel Aviv residents alike is that, however slowly, steps are being taken to improve and integrate the city’s woefully inadequate public transport system.
The Transportation Ministry invested NIS 400 million in the Tel Aviv Fast Lane, launched in January on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway (Route 1) and designed to cut congestion by reducing the number of private cars entering the city from the east. The Fast Lane also offers benefits for those who engage in “car pooling” – private cars with three or more passengers (including the driver) ride free during offpeak hours.
By offering commuters free parking and a free shuttle service to and from Tel Aviv’s major business centers, the Fast Lane could also herald the beginning of a revolution to liberate Israelis from their cars.
Though the long-awaited Tel Aviv light rail is not expected to be operational until 2017, the Transportation Ministry is currently considering an interim system of eco-friendly rapidtransit hybrid buses along the future Red Line route from Bat Yam to Petah Tikva, one of the country’s most densely populated (and congested) corridors.
If that plan goes ahead, it could be a carfree alternative for more commuters.
It is also far easier than ever before for cyclists to take their bikes with them when they commute to and from Tel Aviv on public transport.
“We had a war with Israel Railways to get bikes on trains,” says Israel for Bikes’s Avizohar. “But now they agreed to allow people to carry folding bikes onto the train, and we hope that soon that will be extended to include regular bikes. It’s also possible to carry bikes on intercity buses.”
New legislation will also make it easier for people to store valuable bikes at home, without risk of theft. A new bike parking standard set to come into force over the next few months stipulates that contractors include compulsory bicycle storage in all new residential buildings, in proportion to the number of apartments.
For commuters who do not want to invest in a new cycle, the new Tel-O-Fun bike rental scheme will offer a green, cheaper alternative to expensive taxis and to Tel Aviv’s snail-paced bus services.
And those who prefer to travel the city without breaking into a sweat can purchase or rent electric bikes (specially adapted “green” cycles with a rechargeable auxiliary engine), which became legal in Israel in late 2009.
While it is clear that the city is right at the start of a long journey toward greener transport, the cumulative effect of initiatives like these will allow more Tel Avivians to explore healthier alternatives to driving and provide new ways for those without cars to travel around the city. A city with fewer cars and increased transport choices must be better for everyone.
“At the end of the day, Tel Aviv is good for bikes,” concludes Avizohar, “But it’s also true that bikes are good for Tel Aviv.”